How to Buy a Digital Camera

By Brooke Kaelin on 29 April 2011 (Updated 2 June 2011) 0 comments
Photo: Mikelo

What secrets lie beneath the soft click of the image capture? What misconceptions lurk beneath the Megapixel label? Do you really want all of the bells and whistles, or are you being deceived into paying for totally unnecessary hardware? Let’s take a look at the available digital camera features and you can decide for yourself which ones you want, and which ones could be a waste of your money.

The Megapixel Myth

One Megapixel contains one million pixels. Pixels are the tiny individual dots that make up a photograph. They are normally too small for the eye to make much sense of individually, but when you put them all together they form the image. In this way, the term Megapixel is used to describe the resolution of the digital camera. The higher the number of Megapixels your camera has, the more detailed your photographs can be.

Why it’s misleading: In order to print detailed, beautiful 4x6 photographs you really only need around 3 megapixels. Cameras today are being sold with more than 14 megapixels. If you take a photograph at 14 megapixels you can blow the image up to roughly the size of a wall without losing any of the detail. For some people this is a wonderful feature. It allows you to zoom, crop, and edit photographs to your heart’s delight. You can even personalize and print your images on full-size canvases via popular sites like Personalization Mall or SnapFish.

If you don’t plan on spending lots of time cleaning up and editing your pictures, then a large number of megapixels could be more of an annoyance than anything else. The higher the number of megapixels in the photograph, the more memory it takes to save the photograph. This means that you can take fewer photographs before you have to offload your pictures to your computer, disk, or memory card.

Most cameras today offer settings that allow you to reduce the resolution (aka number of Megapixels) in your photographs. This allows you to prolong the life of your memory. It also allows you to raise the megapixels back up if you decide that you want to take more detailed photographs suitable for enlargement.

Defining DSLR

A Digital Single Lens Reflex camera (DSLR) is a camera that allows light to pass through your camera’s lens and into the viewfinder via a mirror and prism. Some of the defining features of a camera with DSLR capability include:

  • The ability to change the lens and settings on the camera
  • Increased low-light and action-photography capabilities
  • Less “noise” and grain effect in your photographs
  • Crisper texture effects in your photographs
  • Faster shutter speed (i.e. less lag between when you press the button and when the picture is taken — the death of most cheap digital cameras)

Automatic vs Manual

DSLR cameras originally required you to manually adjust the settings on the camera to compensate for light, focus, and distance. Today there are several DSLR cameras on the market that can do this for you, giving you many of the benefits of owning a specialty camera without the frustration of learning to manage each individual setting.

HDSLR Cameras

An HDSLR camera is a camera with DSLR function that is also capable of capturing High Definition video. (For the James Bond techo-geek types out, automatic HDSLR cameras are the digital crème de la crème of point and shoot photography.) Not all HDSLR cameras are created equally though. Pay attention to the following terms when you compare brands.

Video Resolution

There are currently only two popular resolution types of HDSLR cameras: Full HD (1080 pixels) and HD (720 pixels). Just like with Megapixels on a static camera, it is possible to purchase more HD resolution than you need. If you are going to be watching your videos on your computer, or on a television below 32” then you are going to be fine with purchasing a 720 pixel HDSLR camera. However, if you’re going to be watching your video on a 52” HDTV, then you’re going to want to pay for the 1080 Full HD camera. Just like Megapixels, the larger you want to display your picture the more resolution you will need. Keep in mind also that higher resolution requires more memory to store and processing power to run (and edit).

Scanning Type

HDSLR cameras have two scanning types: progressive scanning and interlaced scanning. Interlaced scanning was originally necessary to support older models of televisions. Progressive scanning is much more common and it is likely that it will become the primary method of scanning in future HDSLR cameras. The only visible difference between the two scanning types is that interlaced scanning can sometimes produce a blurry image if the subject you are videoing moves too quickly. Progressive scanning does not normally have this issue.

Frame Rate

The frame rate is the number of frames per second that a progressive HDSLR camera can capture. The average number is 30 frames per second. This is a normal frame rate for home videos. Numbers lower than 30 frames per second can indicate sub-par video quality. Numbers higher than 30 frames per second can allow you to produce some interesting video effects like slow-motion playbacks, but are not strictly necessary if all you want to do is videotape the kids at Christmas.

Size, Weight, and Accessories

The size, weight and number of accessories a camera has may not be as important to you as the actual capability of the camera. However, they are important considerations. If a camera is too large, too bulky or too aggravating for you to carry around on a normal basis, you will not get much use out of it. On the other hand, if it feels small, light and cheap it’s probably not going to last very long. Find a happy medium if possible. Only you will know what you are most comfortable with.

Battery Life and Memory

Ideally your camera will have a long battery life and an easy method of re-charging said batteries. You will also need to know up front which type of memory card your camera takes so that you can purchase and carry additional memory with you to important events. There are three basic types of digital camera memory cards: SDHC, microSDHC and Flash memory cards. No matter which type your camera uses you are going to want to have several of them on hand. Amazon.com and Buy.com usually run sales on all three types and you can occasionally get them as much as 50% off with free shipping.

We’ve covered the most important features of a digital camera -- hopefully enough for you to make an educated decision about which brand fits you the best. The last recommendation we can give is to always read the reviews on your chosen product before you purchase it. Amazon.com (among other retailers) offers consumers a chance to rate products after they purchase it. Search these reviews for things like customer service, return and warranty experiences before you take the plunge and buy a specific camera.

Best Time to Buy

The newest models come out in February — which means older models go on sale.

See our shopping calendar for more tips on the best time to buy anything and our other buying guides.

Best Point and Shoot Cameras

These are our top picks for point and shoot digital cameras, depending on budget and features.

Best Value: Kodak EasyShare C182 (12MP, 3x optical zoom, Smart Capture)

Best Mid-Priced: Canon PowerShot SX130IS (12MP, 12x wide angle optical image stabilized zoom, 720p HD video,, Smart Flash Exposure)

Ultimate Features: Canon SX30IS (14MP, 35x wide angle optical image stabilized zoom, 720p HD video, New Zoom Framing Assist)

Special Features: Fujifilm FinePix XP10 (12MP, waterproof, dustproof, freezeproof, shockproof, 5x optical zoom, 720p video)

Special Features #2: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX1 "Exmor R" (10MP, low light performance, 3-inch touch-screen LCD, 4x optical zoom, 720p HD video, Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens)

Best Digital SLR Cameras

If you're looking for digital SLRs, we recommend these.

Best Value: Canon Rebel XS (10MP, EOS Integrated Cleaning system, Canon's EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens)

Best Mid Priced: Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 (12MP, 3-inch touch screen LCD, 14-42mm Lumix G VARIO f/3.5-5.6 MEGA OIS lens)

Ultimate Features: Canon EOS 5D Mark II (21MP, full frame CMOS sensor, 1080 HD video, EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens)

Special Features: Leica M9 (18MP, smallest full frame digital camera)

For more great shopping tips from Brooke, check out our Daily Deals section for the hottest freebies, coupons, deals, and giveaways.

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